As we near the end of the season of Advent and prepare to receive our King at Christmas, we do well to consider what our King’s reign is like. There are many misunderstandings about the reign of Christ. There’s the misguided idea that the Church is responsible for paving the political way for Jesus to come and reign on earth. There’s the push from many so-called evangelicals to provide funding for the country of Israel, as if the rule of Christ depends on it. And there’s the more general belief that when Jesus comes again, the Last Day will not immediately come, but Jesus will reign on earth for 1,000 years before carrying out a final judgment. This last idea is called millennialism. Where do these ideas come from, that Jesus will reign on earth as an earthly king with an earthly kingdom before the Last Day? And, more importantly, how do we rightly understand the reign of Jesus?
Now in a sense it’s not surprising that Christians have gravitated toward the idea of Jesus reigning as an earthly king. There are many Old Testament prophecies that speak of Jesus reigning as king, for example, Isaiah 9, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder...Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom.” The apostles themselves thought Jesus was going to restore the earthly kingdom of Israel after he rose from the dead, asking him before his ascension, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Not to mention, the idea of Jesus reigning as a king on earth appeals to our conception of what it means to have power and reign. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, so why shouldn’t he visibly rule the world, uphold the Gospel, and prosper his Church?
Yet our conceptions of Jesus must bend the knee to his own words about himself and his kingdom. The simple fact is that the prophecies of the Old Testament don’t have to refer to a physical, earthly rule. Jesus himself says to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36). When Jesus preaches about his reign, he says, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk. 1:15). The kingdom of God comes when Jesus preaches repentance and faith. Or as he says in Romans, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking” – that is, not a matter of earthly things – “but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). When the apostles expect that Jesus is about to restore an earthly kingdom to Israel, he instead points them to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That’s the power they should be concerned about: the Holy Spirit working through the proclamation of the Gospel to convict hearts and create faith.
And if there were still any doubt about the otherworldly character of Christ’s reign, we need only look to the crucifixion of our Lord for clarification. His throne was a cross. His crown was of thorns. Criminals flanked him on his right and left. His victory was in his death. His power was made perfect in weakness. You cannot consider Christ crucified, even after his resurrection and ascension, and suppose that he’s going to fit human ideas about what a king should be.
It is only with clear passages of Scripture in mind that we can even think of turning to the book of Revelation. You heard the reading from Revelation 20 and 21. This is the passage from which people get the idea that Jesus is going to reign on earth for a thousand years. But there’s something you must understand about the book of Revelation before we dive into the reading. The book of Revelation is full of symbols that are not meant to be taken literally. We learn this from the very first verse of Revelation: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants.” The word “to show” more literally means “to signify” or “to show with signs.” The book of Revelation is full of symbols. For example, John sees Christians worshiping the Lamb who was slain, not because Christians worship a sheep, but because the slain Lamb is a symbol of Jesus. And it’s not just the visuals John sees that are symbolic. The numbers he hears are symbolic as well. For example, he hears the total number of Christians: “And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000” (Rev. 7:4). But when he looks and actually lays eyes on this multitude, he says, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number” (Rev. 7:9). So when we run into numbers in Revelation, it shouldn’t surprise us if they aren’t literal, but instead symbolize something. Revelation is full of symbols.
Well now we can ask: what is going on in Revelation 20 and 21? Fair warning, because this is a brief evening sermon and not a multi-session Bible class, this is going to be rather cursory. Nevertheless, even if we can’t go into the utmost detail on each point, you will find the interpretation of this passage to be in harmony with the rest of Scripture.
First we have an angel coming down from heaven who has the key to the abyss and a great chain. This angel is Jesus, who said in Matthew 12, “how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house” (Mt. 12:29). So Jesus, the stronger man, has come and seized Satan and chained him up and confined him. This does not mean that the devil is no longer at work in the world, otherwise the Apostle Peter wouldn’t warn us, saying, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Yes, the devil is still about, but Christ controls him. Jesus can let out some chain and let the devil wreak havoc in a restrained way, only as much as Jesus sees fit for his own purposes. And then Jesus can rein the devil in like a naughty dog and slap him on the nose and make him whimper and cower with his tail between his legs.
This is the current state of things. The devil is under the dominion of Christ, and has been since Christ came in the flesh, and will be for a thousand years. Now we should not suppose that this is a literal thousand years. The Lord says, “the cattle on a thousand hills are mine” (Ps. 50:10), but we wouldn’t suppose that the cattle on hill number 1,001 don’t belong to him. Of course those cattle are his too. The point is, the number 1,000 is all-encompassing. In terms of years, it refers to a perfect period of time, the Lord’s time, and it will last as long as the Lord wants it to last. We’re currently in the midst of this thousand years, and we will be until just before the Last Day.
During this thousand years, while the devil is bound, the saints reign with Christ for a thousand years, again referring not to a literal millennium, but God’s perfect amount of time. “The first resurrection” of which we heard in the reading is a spiritual resurrection, the one of which Paul writes in Ephesians 2, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” We may die once, that is, die a physical death. But we will not die twice, that is, we will not suffer eternal death in hell. On us Jesus pronounces his blessing: “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:6). We do indeed reign with Christ. For what is it to reign except to have authority to judge? And do we not judge when we forgive the sins of repentant sinners and withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent? Do we not judge when we pray our Father in heaven to hallow his name and make his kingdom come and deliver us from evil? We dare not underestimate the power of the Absolution, of prayer, of the praise of God. The devil blanches before the littlest of these singing children, because he knows his end is near.
After the thousand years of being restrained by Christ, the devil “must be released for a little while.” Then he will deceive the nations in a way he is not able to accomplish now. It will seem like the whole world has gone insane, and the devil will try everything in his power to destroy the Church and the Gospel. In Revelation it was pictured as an army marshaling for battle and besieging the Church and preparing to attack. But before the devil could fire a single shot, Jesus rained fire on him from heaven and the Last Day came.
Here’s an image I use when teaching this passage to my students. Picture a Rottweiler chained to a stake in a front yard. He spends all day barking and trying to break his chain, because in the yard across the street sits a little white cat that he longs to mangle and eat. We are that white cat, and this is our current situation. The devil can rant and rave and seek to devour us, but he can’t. Jesus has him chained up. “This world’s prince may still / Scowl fierce as he will. / He can harm us none. / He’s judged; the deed is done.” Dear saints, don’t be afraid of a devil who’s under the dominion of Christ and can’t do anything more than growl and make mean faces. Don’t cower and fear as you see the devil at work in the world. It is restrained work, our Lord is in control, and we don’t need an earthly kingdom to know that. We just need the Word of God.
Anyhow, there’s the Rottweiler, there’s the cat. The day will come when Jesus gives the command to pull the stake. And he will hold us in his arms as the Rottweiler thinks, “At last! I’m free! I can have my way!” And the dog will tear into the street, eyes fixed on the cat, and will be blindsided by a Mack truck. Satan will be released, and with all his so-called cunning and power will throw himself headlong into judgment, and Christ will bring the end.
See, the book of Revelation is not scary, nor does it speak of different things than the rest of Scripture does. Rather, Revelation confirms what we know of Christ from elsewhere in the Bible, and rather than being scary, the book of Revelation is comforting. It is comforting to know that, while we may not see Jesus exercising his divine power, he nevertheless not only rules the world, but has the devil on a chain and has total dominion over our archenemy. We can still long for the day when faith will become sight, when the Last Day comes and we see Jesus ruling over all things. But we don’t need a literal thousand year reign of Christ to be secure in our Lord’s kingdom. Would we wish a golden crown on him who is himself more precious than gold? Would we wish borders and boundaries of a physical kingdom on him who rules all things regardless of political boundaries? Would we wish him to rule a mere state who rules sin, death, the devil, the world? Jesus preaches the Gospel. Jesus sends his Holy Spirit. Jesus rescues the lost. Jesus guards the faithful. This is our Lord’s reign. This is the King we receive at Christmas. And to that we say: Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.